A cycling network, Downtown revitalization, and the plan for an innovation district are among the “liberal” legacies of Mayor Helps. What might follow?
NO, THIS IS NOT MY LAST COLUMN. I’ll write Focus columns as long as my fingers can type. “Aaaaarrrrgggghhh!” Thud!
Just a bit of senior’s standup. Okay, sorry.
A mid-April Times-Colonist news story described the City of Victoria’s plans for a simplified and shortened approval process for not-for-profit developers of various forms of affordable housing. The piece featured quotes from the mayor about the City’s intentions and goals, praise from provincial Housing Minister David Eby, and a comment that Victoria was the first BC municipality to initiate such new rules.
Not bad for a city used to boasting “We’re number twelve!” Not bad for a city still waiting for the Queen’s visit. By sailing ship.
It may have caught your attention that something’s, well, changing in Victoria; and while I’m sure there’s lots of deserved credit to spread around for this latest housing accomplishment, I believe that, in the diminishing months of her second and last term, it’s important to recognize that Mayor Lisa Helps’ most potent gift to Victoria civic society is the one that will be least understood or appreciated….
While Victoria has had mayors good and bad, no mayor in my lengthening memory (back to Courtney Haddock in 1970, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth) gave the City the habit and tools of preparedness, anticipation, instead of just reflex; that is, of reading the future, of giving the City some bounce, of setting it in a world larger than its own microscopic preoccupations, a more risk and opportunity-filled world, and less blanketed by the illusion of a guarantee.
No, not “bike lanes,” but a bike mobility system. Oh, the bike thing isn’t perfect? Well, apart from your cure for all that ails us, what is?
People who believe the road system belongs, by custom or biblical command, exclusively to cars—their speed, power and cultural meaning—and that only school kids ride bikes, are critical of the bike mobility network because it inconveniences cars, changes or adds rules, imposes a counter-reality. In turn, this leaves them critical of Helps herself who has been the signature champion of the bike mobility system and who has poured a significant amount of her political capital into engineering its public support, policy adoption and implementation.
And now the bike lane system spreads almost everywhere, reaching back to us from the future.
As noted, Helps has now led a City initiative to simplify and shorten the development approval process for affordable housing proposals and at least softened the imperial veto of the community associations—her last big win, you might think, before her two-term mayoral stint ends this November.
But don’t overlook two others in which she has played both a creative and leadership role: the significant residential re-densification of Downtown, sure to figure crucially in long-range Downtown business and economic viability; and a strategy, now taking shape, for arts/cultural intensification and re-centralization Downtown, somewhat linked to the idea of a so-called “innovation district” in ex-industrial Rock Bay, just north of Chinatown.
While the City’s design approval of heartless, ice-cold tombstone residential high-rises mutes my general excitement, I’m willing to look beyond their enduring visual and social damage in support of the goal of Downtown renewal.
Helps is not likely to be followed by a successor with the same disposition or skills (let’s just say the odds don’t favour it), which worries me because the world is turning upside down and efforts, however understandable, to hold on, hold on, hold on, or to seek a social return to the comforts of yesteryear’s traditions and practices, will likely prove fruitless or flawed and will simply deepen the city’s handicap, making it more rigid, more inertial, stupider, less potent…not a recipe for healthy survival.
Progressivism, liberalism—really, whatever words you use to define the recent and now-diminishing climate of profound social permissions, tolerances and encouragements—has hit a ditch, or a wall. A Trump presidential return in ’24—a near-certainty—will unleash a collapse of US progressive values and social practice and a lurch rightward in Canada, too. It’s all just waiting to crawl out from under the floor. Under such conditions, civic adventure ends.
It’s not the purpose of this column simply to iterate Mayor Helps’ accomplishments, but to give you a context, a way of studying your own life as a civic stakeholder, a citizen.
In serious times like these, “lalalala” has little value, plays no purpose. Instead, you have to ask: “Do I like this life? Do I like what I have? Do I like where I live? How do I sustain it?” That’s the start of citizenship. Otherwise, you’re just camping.
Ezra Klein, New York Times columnist, recently quoted from Matthew Rose's new book A World After Liberalism: “After three decades of dominance, liberalism is losing its hold on Western minds.” Klein goes on to write, “Rose means liberalism as in the shared assumptions of the West.
That liberalism seems exhausted, ground down, defined by the contradictions and broken promises that follow victory rather than the creativity and aspiration that attend struggle.
“At its best and sometimes at its worst, liberalism makes the past into a truly foreign land, and that can turn those who still inhabit it into anachronisms in their own time.
“Liberalism needs a healthier relationship to time. How can the past become a foreign country without those who still live there being turned into foreigners in their own land? If the future is to be unmapped, then how do we persuade those who fear it, or mistrust us, to agree to venture into its wilds?”
Good to have civic poise, in other words, but then follows the non-stop work of doing wise and hopeful things with it.
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, writing “Houseplex—Density Without Damage,” presenting and editing the website “Shit Sandwich—the Best of the Bad News,” and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for social innovation.
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